If there’s no occupation, then where are equal rights?

First published by the New Arab on 26/11/2018

Israel has had a ‘normalisation‘ bonanza with a number of Arab Gulf countries in recent weeks without having to give anything in return.
What had previously been relations under the table are now out in the open. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu breached the decades-long taboo of an Israeli prime minister making an official visit to an Arab state with whom Israel does not hold a peace treaty. The surprise visit was to Oman, for a meeting with Sultan Qaboos. 

Observers were further shocked by visits from Israeli sport and culture minister, Regev, to the United Arab Emirates and transport minister Yisrael Katz, to Oman.

The 2002 Arab League’s Arab Peace Initiative, which offered Israel full normalisation with the Arab and Muslim world in return for peace with its neighbours – and which it rejected – has effectively been surpassed with normalisation at no cost.

The normalising Arab countries appear to have succumbed to Trump’s pressure to normalise first, and hope that peace follows. Trump’s advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have collected many air miles doing work for Netanyahu, shuttling between Tel Aviv and Arab capitals, convincing Arab leaders that Iran is the threat, not Israel, and that Israel could be their ally in combating the threat from Tehran.

The Trump administration appears to have succeeded in shifting their focus away from the Palestinian issue which has until recently been the central obstacle to normalisation. I talk here of course about Arab leaders, not people, for whom the Palestinian issue is still a central issue.

The question though, is how can normalisation first, bring peace? Cynics and optimists alike are of the view that it will not bring peace. For Israel’s supporters and lobbyists, what is important is quiet, not peace.

This was illustrated by their failure to call on Netanyahu to return to meaningful negotiations, and to show ‘good faith’, while supporting Israel’s recent attack on Gaza following its botched operation to abduct or assassinate a Hamas commander in Khan Younis. 

After his visit to Oman, Netanyahu cut short his visit to France, where he was scheduled to attend the commemoration of 100 years since the World War I Armistice truce. 

He swapped a seat on the front row there for security meetings in Tel Aviv, following renewed violence in the Gaza Strip. 

Israel’s supporters, including Trump’s team, blamed the Palestinian resistance for responding to Israeli aggression. Netanyahu was faced with a choice of either a full-scale war on Gaza, or reinstating a ceasefire.

Both would be politically costly, though only one would also result in more deaths and injuries. Thankfully, Netanyahu chose the former. The political price he paid was the resignation of his Defence Minister and rival, Avigdor Lieberman together with pro-war demonstrations by Israeli settlers.

In between his normalisation PR trip and the botched operation in Gaza, Netanyahu provided yet more evidence that normalisation with Arab states would not bring peace. 

He stated at a Likud factional meeting that claims that Israel occupies the Palestinians are absurd, and that “Occupation is nonsense. Empires have conquered and replaced entire populations and no one is talking about it”.   

What truly matters is strong diplomacy, Netanyahu added. “Power changes everything in our policy with Arab countries.”

According to The Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu told his party colleagues that concessions are regarded as a weakness in the Middle East, which don’t bring about lasting change. Instead, “aligning [Arab] interests with Israel, based on Israel being a technological superpower, must lead the way.”

If Jerusalem is recognised by the US as Israel’s capital, with small countries planning to join the US in moving their embassies from Tel Aviv and with plans afoot to void the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, added to Netanyahu’s declaration that there is no occupation, what exactly are Arab countries expecting in return for normalisation?

Netanyahu has declared that Israel must maintain security over the whole of historic Palestine in any future deal, but that is not all.

According to the controversial Nation State Law which was passed into basic law in July, only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel, whose borders remain unknown and settlements are not illegal. If this is to be the case, there are no items remaining on an agenda for any future talks. 

Israel will therefore continue to rule over all those who inhabit the land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, but without affording the equal rights that democratic states would offer. 

This qualifies it as the 21st century’s only Apartheid state.

When millions of people around the world call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Apartheid Israel, the Arab states choose this very moment to normalise. This is not a politically wise decision. 

The Palestinians yearn to return to the very homes they and their parents were expelled from in 1948, which international law supports as a basic human right. 

The Palestinian National Council recently decided to mandate the PLO’s Executive Committee to withdraw recognition of Israel, as it continues to deny recognition of Palestine and the rights of Palestinians. 

Now is the time for Palestinians to call for equal rights for all who live in historic Palestine, and for the Palestinian refugees to return. A truly democratic state for all would end the dispute about what is or is not occupied now. It would also surely bring peace to the Holy Land, and only then, deserved normalisation with the Arab and Muslim world.

With no meaningful international plan, Khan Al-Ahmar needs a popular uprising to save it

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 11/10/2018

Israeli occupation forces storm the Bedouin village of Khan Al-Ahmar in the West Bank on 14 September 2018 [Ä°ssam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

Israeli occupation forces storm the Bedouin village of Khan Al-Ahmar in the West Bank on 14 September 2018 [İssam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

The Palestinian Bedouin residents of Khan Al-Ahmar wake up every morning relieved that the Israeli occupation’s bulldozers did not arrive overnight to destroy their homes and their children’s school. They remain fearful, though, that it is only a matter of time before their village is destroyed and they are expelled from the land they have lived on for over 40 years. One can only imagine the horror that the residents, especially the children, experience because of this psychological terrorism to which Israel is subjecting them.

UNICEF expressed its alarm recently that that “the school in Khan Al Ahmar in the State of Palestine could be destroyed in the coming days or even hours.” The UN body added that, “The 167 children from that town and neighbouring village who are learning, dreaming and playing there have a right to access safe education wherever their communities and families are living, just like all the other children in the world.” UNICEF asked the Israeli authorities for “the interests of children [to] be a primary consideration in their decision making.”

Any assumption that Israel cares about the education or welfare of Palestinian children is simply not supported by the evidence of its daily conduct. Children are routinely abducted in the night, bundled into Israeli army vehicles, interrogated without parents or legal advisers present, tried before military courts in a language most don’t understand, and imprisoned for long periods. Furthermore, Israeli snipers have no compunction about pointing their rifles at children at the Gaza fence and killing them. In August, Defence for Children International reported that Israel had killed 37 Palestinian children since the start of 2018. The number continues to rise; the latest victim was 12-year-old Faris Al-Sirsawi.

Read: Israel settlers flood Khan Al-Ahmar with waste water

The village of Nabi Saleh found its way onto the international stage, becoming a must-visit part of the itinerary of not only international human rights activists but also Western politicians, not least because the Tamimis — young Ahed Tamimi in particular — rose to prominence there with their resistance to the Israeli occupation. That resistance culminated with the now famous slap of an Israeli soldier by Ahed, for which she paid with 8 months in jail.

Khan Al-Ahmar has captured the imagination of the international community not only because its demolition is simply the wrong thing to do on a humanitarian level, but also because of its actual location, which Western politicians understand could finally lay to rest any remaining prospect of a two-state solution. The argument is that if the village is destroyed and Israel proceeds to expand the illegal settlements in the “E1 corridor”, Jerusalem will be cut off from its West Bank hinterland completely and the contiguity needed for a Palestinian state would be lost.

The village has become a battleground between the international community and the Israeli authorities, who are now armed with a decision by the Supreme Court that the village can be demolished and could proceed with their plans at any moment. The Israelis argue that the villagers built their homes without permits. The residents point out that Israel refuses to grant permits to Palestinians to build on their own, illegally-occupied land, while colonies continue to be built for Jews within sight of their village. Only Israel regards the land on which the Bedouins live as “state land” rather than illegally-occupied territory, as the whole of the international community sees it. If the land is indeed state land, then it can only belong to the state of Palestine.

A number of politicians have “expressed concern” at the demolition plan, with some being moved to warn Israel that forced transfer of an occupied people could “amount to a war crime”. One of the most vocal has been Britain’s Minster for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, who has visited the village on a number of occasions. While warning Israel that it could be committing a “war crime”, Burt has not made the demolition and forced transfer of the local population a red line that, if crossed by Israel, would bring forth consequences for Britain’s relations with the Zionist state.

There were hopes that, during her recent visit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not only raise the issue of the village with her host Benjamin Netanyahu but would also go further. Reports initially suggested that Merkel would cancel her visit if the village was demolished before her arrival. However, once there, her reported response to the issue was typically weak of Western politicians. “This is an Israeli decision,” she said at a morning event at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, during which the University of Haifa conferred upon her an honorary doctorate. You’re wrong, Frau Merkel, it is not an Israeli decision. It is a failure of the international community to act to stop Israeli crimes that will lead to the village’s demolition.

The predicament of the community of Khan Al-Ahmar can be traced back to the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993. The 25th anniversary of the Accords was marked with a key conference organised recently by Middle East Monitor. Oslo failed to deal with the core issues that must be resolved if peace is to be achieved between Palestinians and Israelis. One of these is the issue of settlements and the illegal occupation. The lack of reference to international law in the Accords is a fundamental flaw therein. However, it is the lack of political will by the international community to pressure Israel to fulfil its undertakings under the agreement which continues to give Israel free rein to do whatever it wants.

Read: Imminent demolition of Khan Al-Ahmar ‘heartless’ and a ‘war crime’ says Amnesty

Israel will no doubt demolish Khan Al-Ahmar at a time of its choosing. The international community will express concern, disappointment and possibly condemnation of this. The EU might even ask Israel to compensate it for funds donated towards small projects in the village. However, no meaningful action will be taken against the state. At the end of the day, Israel will just move on to carry out another illegal act as it seeks to complete the Zionist occupation of the whole of historic Palestine, from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.

With no meaningful plan by the international community in place to protect the village, the only action that will end the uncertainty for the residents of Khan Al-Ahmar will be a popular uprising that sees thousands of Palestinians march there, determined to protect it for as many days or months as it will take either for Israel to abandon its plans or for the international community to realise that this tiny village will not only be a symbol of peaceful resistance, but will also raise the cost of the occupation for Israel to a point where it begins to come to its senses. That could see the Great March of Return protests at the Gaza fence, now in their eighth month, finally arrive in the West Bank. If Trump and his Zionist advisers can disrupt the status quo in favour of Israel, the Palestinian people can disrupt it in favour of their cause.

Israel’s demolition of Al-Khan Al-Ahmar - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Trump’s Administration will fail to break the Palestinians

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 11/9/2018

Trump and Netanyahu are now brothers in arms in racism against the Palestinians

US President Donald Trump (L) is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2017 [Daniel Bar On/Anadolu Agency]

US President Donald Trump (L) is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Tel Aviv on 22 May 2017 [Daniel Bar On/Anadolu Agency]

The Palestinian people and their cause are facing an existential threat in their homeland. Anyone who thinks that this an exaggeration should remember how many times since US President Donald Trump took office that the phrase “I can’t believe what he has just done” was used. People said that when he appointed his anti-Palestinian “dream peace team” made up of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, former company lawyer Jason Greenblatt and former bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman. All three are ardent supporters of Zionism, Israel and the settlement enterprise. Unbelievably he recently added war monger and Palestinian-hater John Bolton as National Security Adviser.

They said that it was unbelievable that Trump broke with every previous American president since Bill Clinton by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December last year. He followed this by moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in record time. His daughter and son-in-law inaugurated it on the 70st anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba as over 60 Palestinians were murdered at the Gaza fence marching peacefully to return to the homes they were expelled from in 1948. Trump had the audacity to claim that his move would bring peace closer because it would take Jerusalem “off the table”.

They said it was unbelievable when Trump initially cut and recently ended the US contribution to UNRWA, the UN agency which has delivered vital services to the most vulnerable Palestinians, the refugees. Rather than exert pressure on Israel to allow them to peacefully return to their homes, Trump parroted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that the agency “perpetuates” the refugee problem by passing this status from one generation to another. Facing severe financial difficulties as a result of this immoral US move, the agency’s schools which reopened recently for the new academic year warned that they may have to close at the end of September unless the $217 million deficit is plugged by others. Palestine was recently reported to have one of the lowest illiteracy rates in the world.

Read: Trump cuts aid to Palestinian hospitals in occupied Jerusalem

Jared Kushner was reported to have tried to pressure King Abdullah of Jordan to remove the status of some two million Palestinian refugees residing in his Kingdom, which the King refused to do.

They said it was unbelievable when the US cut funding to the Palestinian Authority by $200 million but kept funding for the security services, which secure |Israel, not the Palestinians. What was even more unbelievable was the American administration’s decision to cut its $25 million of funding for the treatment of cancer in Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. This sickening decision hits the most vulnerable with immediate effect.

It should be unbelievable that the neither the US nor the EU have condemned Israel’s racist and Apartheid confirming Nation-state Law. However, we all remember which side the US and EU took when blacks in South Africa were fighting for their freedom and the end of Apartheid there.

Perhaps less unbelievable was the decision to close the PLO Office in Washington. This has been on the cards for some time, but presumably Sheldon Addison and AIPAC could not bear seeing the Palestinian flag lying in Washington. However, what is unbelievable is that Congress still considers the PLO a terrorist organisation, despite the White House rolling out the red carpet for first Yasser Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas on a number of occasions and despite the famous signing of the Oslo Accords and the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawns in 1993. Trump himself met Abbas in Bethlehem on his first visit as president to the region last year. The reason given for the closure was the PA’s refusal to return to meaningless negotiations and to dare to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It was therefore not unbelievable, though it should be, to watch John Bolton rubbish and threaten the ICC with sanctions in his recent speech. He directly threatened judges if they actually do their work and bring to justice not just American citizens but Israelis suspected of war crimes. He warned: “If the court comes after us, Israel, or other US allies, we will not sit quietly,” adding: “We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the US financial system, and we will prosecute them in the US criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans.”

Read: The debate on UNRWA takes focus away from the realities of Palestinian refugees

Working in cahoots with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Bolton clearly does not consider the West Bank or East Jerusalem as occupied. In his speech he referred to the construction of illegal Israel settlements as simply “Israeli construction of housing projects on the West Bank”, which he castigated the ICC for even considering prosecuting Israeli leaders for sanctioning and funding. Unbelievable too was Israeli high court proclamation that settlers acted “in good faith” when they built illegally on Palestinian land.

With Jerusalem “off the table”, settlements just construction projects, no right of return for Palestinian refugees, no recourse for Palestinians to the ICC and UN Security Council paralysed by an Israeli veto (yes) and an administration that is content with supporting Israel both politically and to the tune of $3 billion per year, the Palestinian cause faces an existential threat.

However, not only is the cause facing an existential threat, the Palestinians themselves are facing an existential threat. Israel’s Nation State Law gave only Jews the right to self-determination within whatever borders Israel claims for itself but not to Palestinians. It further recognised Jewish only settlements as a “national value”. If only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel then they could decide they do not want any Palestinians in the area Israel rules.

A racist Israeli state is now supported by an American administration that is racist against the Palestinian people. It sees them as having no rights whatsoever, apart from any crumbs that Netanyahu and his extremist government will give them but only if that does not impact Israel’s security, whatever that means.

#UNRWA

Having failed to “encourage” Palestinians to leave of their own accord through 70 years of oppression, it may be the right moment for Israel to put all Palestinians on busses to Jordan and “Greater Gaza”, which has been talked about as part of Trump’s “ultimate deal”. Is that beyond belief? Just think who would act to stop it if it tried? It certainly won’t be America, the EU or the Arab states. It also won’t be the UK as this will be a further fulfilment of the Balfour Declaration, whose centenary it celebrated last year.

The only thing that will stop it, which Trump has not built in as a factor in his immoral “ultimate deal” is the resilience of the Palestinian people, all 13 million of them. He should have realised this on the day the embassy was moved when over 60 Palestinians were killed in Gaza. That has not stopped them going to the fence again and again and again as they have done since 30 March. The Palestinians will outlast Trump’s administration. However long it takes they will stay and fight for their very existence in their homeland and those in the diaspora will not give up on their right to return. After all they are the people of the land not Israeli settler colonialists whose resilience will waiver and whose hold on the land is only maintained through the barrel of a gun.

With Israel’s Nation State Law in place, violence against Palestinians will get worse

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 30/8/2018

Israeli forces fire tear gas at Palestinian during a protest in Nablus West Bank on 15 February 2018 [Nedal Eshtayah/Anadolu Agency]

Ever since Israel passed the Nation State Law, Palestinians and neutral observers have been wondering about its possible impact on the substantial Palestinian minority in Israel as well as those living under occupation in the rest of historic Palestine. The law says that Israel is the state for Jews all over the world and that only Jews have a right to self-determination therein. It also demoted the status of Arabic, which has up to now been recognised as an official language. The law further proclaimed illegal Jewish settlements to be a national value. The Palestinians, whether citizens of Israel or living under its occupation, did not feature.

The signal going out to Jewish Israelis is that this is their land, even though its borders remain undefined, albeit they are assumed to be from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan. Non-Jewish Israelis have no rights in the land, despite the fact that the Palestinians are the indigenous people. The natural conclusion to this “logic” is that they should leave of their own accord, otherwise ways will be found to make their lives so unbearable that they leave out of fear, as happened in the 1948 Nakba when the majority of the Palestinians were expelled.

The world’s shameful silence at Israel’s open declaration that it is a de facto Apartheid state was deafening. If a state can pass such a discriminatory law and get away with it, then it can do anything.

Netanyahu: Nation state law grants all Jews ‘automatic’ immigration rights to Israel

It is worth noting that Israel passed this law shortly after a bill was disqualified from being tabled in the Knesset; that proposed legislation called for equal rights for all Israeli citizens, something we take for granted in real democracies. Readers are reminded that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considered “Arabs” voting in the last elections as such a threat that he appealed to his supporters to go out and vote, because “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” So much for the self-proclaimed “only democracy in the Middle East”. The reality is that Palestinian citizens of Israel — 20 per cent of the population — have always been seen as a threat rather than an asset. Israel is very aware of the “demographic threat” that they pose, simply for having beautiful babies.The Israeli government can now use the Nation State Law as a backdrop to expand the gap further between its Palestinian citizens and their fellow citizens who happen to be Jews, particularly in relation to creating more settlements within the 1948 borders and further restricting building in Palestinian communities. Jew-only communities can use entirely legal “admissions committees” to ban Palestinian Israelis from moving in, fearing that they may sully their neighbourhood. The recent demonstration in the northern town of Afula against the sale of one house to a Palestinian family is testament to the increasingly racist nature of Israeli society.Sadly, it does not stop at demonstrations or the pretence of a state that upholds international norms for a democracy or a fair legal system. Palestinians, both citizens and occupied, face increasing violence simply for who they are and that they remain in their land.

At Haifa’s Kiryat Haim beach recently, three Palestinian Israeli citizens from Shafram were approached by a group of Jewish Israelis who asked them if they were “Arabs”. Their answer in the affirmative resulted in the inquisitors leaving only for a group of eight to return with weapons, attack them violently and yell, “You are Arab dogs, do not stay here.” They explained later that they were not doing anyone any harm on the beach, but that the attackers “just decided to hit us without cause. They almost killed us. We asked them to stop but they continued. They were removed only after other people arrived at the scene. We hope the police find them.” The Palestinians acknowledge that it was other Israeli Jews who came to their rescue.

They worry about nationalist attacks. “Unfortunately, despite the various condemnations against racism, it persists,” they added. “Who will be next?” The Israeli police have arrested a 23-year-old resident of Kiryat Haim on suspicion of attacking the three men.

Poll: 58% of Israelis support the Jewish ‘nation state law’

This incident is particularly worrying because it was an unprovoked attack on Palestinian Israelis just weeks after the passing of the Nation State Law. The only official condemnation reportedly came from President Reuven Rivlin, not Netanyahu.

This was not the first incident of such attacks by Israeli Jews on Palestinians. In May, bus driver Adham Badir, 38, was pepper sprayed and assaulted between Petah Tikva and Kafr Qasem by three young settlers simply for asking them to wait for the next bus as his was too full for them to bring their electric bikes on board.

A number of attacks have been carried out by members of far-right Jewish group Lehava, which is against romantic relationships between Palestinian men and Jewish girls. In April last year, five Israeli men and one juvenile, all of them Jews, were charged in connection with a series of brutal assaults on Palestinian men in the southern city of Be’er Sheva. The suspects confirmedthat they had been involved in at least six separate incidents between December 2016 and 6 April 2017 carried out with the aim of stopping their targets from pursuing romantic relationships with Jewish women.

In the Occupied Territories, settler violence has been a feature of the daily lives of Palestinians for years. The most high profile incidents were the murders of Mohammed Abu Khdair in Jerusalem in 2014 and the burning to death of the Dawabsheh family a year later. Added to this is a long list of daily attacks on property, crops and olive trees, normally overseen by the Israel Defence Forces, the self-proclaimed “most moral army in the world”. IDF soldiers openly admit that they are there to protect the illegal settlers, not the Palestinians.

Netanyahu promises to ease house demolitions in Druze communities post-Nation State Law

The soldiers recently faced a dilemma when 10 Jewish Israeli settlers attacked 4 Jewish Israeli peace activists from Ta’ayush who were documenting illegal construction in the unauthorised Jewish outpost of Mitzpe Yair. Just who do they protect? In the event, injuries occurred only on the peace activists’ side, leaving us to draw our own conclusion about which side the soldiers are on.

It is particularly worrying that Israel is “relaxing the rules” on gun ownership and allowing up to 500,000 more civilians to carry lethal weapons. This would allow veterans of Israel’s infantry units to obtain licenses more easily, as well as officers and commanders who have completed their reserve duty to keep their weapons. The implication is that the overwhelming majority of those who will benefit will be Jewish Israelis. This poses a real threat to Palestinians across historic Palestine — Israel and the Occupied Territories, including Jerusalem —from trigger-happy Israeli Jews.

International solidarity activists have also faced violence from settlers and the IDF. Norwegian activist Kristen Foss, 43, was shot with rubber bullets on two occasions by soldiers, in the abdomen on 18 August and in the ankle almost a week later. She was taking part in demonstrations in Kafr Qaddum to express solidarity with the residents’ demand for the reopening of the direct road to Nablus and access to their farmland.

Calls for violence against Palestinians including “death to the Arabs” are a regular feature of right-wing rallies and extremist gangs. Thousands chanted this in Rabin Square in 2016 as the crowd gathered in support of Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier filmed executing 21 year old Abdul Fatah Al-Sharif in illegally occupied Hebron, even though the young Palestinian was already incapacitated having been shot by other soldiers following an alleged knife attack. Azaria was convicted of manslaughter, though in the event he only served only half of his 18-month sentence. Even more troubling was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated calls for Azaria’s pardon.

Hebron shooter Azaria: ‘I have no remorse whatsoever’

Upon his release in May, Azaria received a hero’s welcome when he returned to the scene of the crime. Activists of the far-right Otzma Yehudit group organised his homecoming.

Far from showing any remorse for what he did, Azaria has said, “I have no remorse. I am completely at peace with myself. I acted as needed. I went with my own [inner] truth. I acted in the most proper way possible and what happened afterwards [his trial and conviction] should not have happened.” What message does that send to other young Israelis?

The lack of condemnation or even concern by Israeli leaders about rising Jewish Israeli violence against Palestinians serves to embolden the extremists. Israel’s leadership feels emboldened and protected by US President Trump and his administration, as well as the silence of the Arab and Muslim world; Netanyahu now feels that he can do whatever he wants with complete impunity.

The future, post the passing of the Nation State Law, is worrying for Palestinians across historic Palestine. They need protection from Israeli violence, which is currently going unchallenged. Is the so called “international community” willing to help, or even capable of doing so?

How the US is sidelining Palestinian refugees

First published by the Middle East Eye on 18/8/2018

Dual approach involves starving UNRWA of funding and trying to strip Palestinians of their refugee status

There are indications that a truce between Hamas and Israel is close to being concluded, bypassing the Palestinian Authority.

The main commercial access point to Gaza, Kerem Shalom crossing, has been reopened after a period of closure amid recent heightened tensions. But whatever short-term relief this provides for Palestinians in Gaza will not address Palestinians’ long-term demands.

The US continues to work on a “peace plan” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without the input of Palestinians. Elements have already been implemented, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the defunding of services for Palestinian refugees via the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Concealing the occupation

The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has also been arguing that there is no illegal occupation. He wrote to the State Department last December, asking it to drop the terms “occupation” and “Israeli-occupied territories”.

He suggested using the term “West Bank,” which he described as “more neutral”. Friedman is a major donor to the the illegal settlement of Beit El and serves as president of the American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva, the US fundraising arm of a number of institutions in the illegal settlement. He is also known to be against the two-state solution.

It was noticeable that the State Department’s 2017 human rights report replaced references to the “occupied territories” with “Israel,” “Golan Heights,” “West Bank” or “Gaza”.

Friedman does not recognise Palestinian refugees’ right of return, enshrined in  UN Resolution 194. His personal view is that “the goal ought to be to enable them to acclimate and to enter society in wherever they landed”.

Friedman prefers the UNHCR definition, which does not refer to the descendants of refugees, to the UNRWA definition, which states that “the descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration”.

UNRWA began operations in 1950 in response to the needs of about 750,000 Palestinian refugees; today, more than five million are eligible for its services.

‘Existential crisis’

The US appears to have turned its focus to “disappearing” Palestinian refugees from the issues to be resolved. But how can the Americans do this, while still appearing to offer a “deal of the century”?

What is emerging is a dual approach, which involves both starving UNRWA of needed funds and removing the issue of refugees altogether. Both are demands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has argued that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue.

The US has gone along with this by slashing $300m in funding to the agency. In a radio interview last month, spokesperson Sami Mushasha said UNRWA was facing an “existential crisis“. An effort to raise additional funds, including conferences in Rome and New York, has still left the agency with a deficit of more than $200m, although concerns that Palestinian schools would not open in September have been allayed.

Palestinian refugees and Bedouins receive medical checkups and aid from UNRWA in the occupied West Bank on 9 August 2018 (AFP)

According to Mushasha, the emergency budget for Gaza and the West Bank had almost “disappeared overnight” because of the US cuts. Only life-saving food provisions to Palestinian refugees in Gaza would be funded. UNRWA, which employs 13,000 staff in the occupied Palestinian territories, has cut 113 positions in Gaza and 154 in the West Bank. In the ensuing protests, one Gaza man tried to set himself on fire.

But UNRWA has survived, which could be why the US special envoy for the Middle East, Jared Kushner, has been looking for ways to strip refugees of their status. In internal emails to senior US administration officials, Kushner said: “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA. This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”

Right of return

According to an article in Foreign Policy, Palestinian officials revealed that Kushner pressed Jordan in June “to strip its more than two million registered Palestinians of their refugee status so that UNRWA would no longer need to operate there”.

Ali Huweidi, the general manager of a Lebanon-based refugee rights organisation, told MEE that Jordan’s Palestinian refugees make up more than 40 percent of the refugees in UNRWA’s five areas of operation. If the agency were to cease providing these services, he said, Palestinian refugees would be transferred to UNHCR, which “would then seek to resettle Palestinian refugees in third countries. Once they are granted citizenship, their status as refugees falls.”

Both Jordan and Lebanon have rejected moves to transfer the provision of services for Palestinian refugees from UNRWA to host governments. Huweidi noted that Jordan views the agency as “an important strategic partner”. Lebanese officials have also indicated that the state could not take on UNRWA’s role, particularly in the areas of education and health.

The Palestinian refugees I met on a recent trip to Lebanon all told me that they would not accept anything short of a return to their homes, a sentiment echoed by those participating in Gaza’s Great March of Return. Only then will peace come to the holy land.

Debate on British Palestinians’ letter to the Guardian on their right to freedom of speech

I joined a debate on RT UK on this letter in the Guardian which I signed on 1/8/2018